Embracing both sides of the story

snobSeptember 6, 2013 – Writers are among the only artists to openly put down each other’s work.

Other creative mediums such as film have “A” list actors, as well as “B” and “C”, but you rarely hear “A” listers put down their “B” and “C” comrades publicly. It’s the same with the music industry. There are many genres, some more serious than others, yet the majority of musicians respect the art and each other.

In fiction, however, literary writers and publications often snub writers of the mainstream, referring to their work as banal or trite. Anyone who writes and publishes a book, however, and achieves mass-market fame deserves accolades from their peers because it’s one of the most difficult industries to break into successfully. Just ask the thousands and thousands of talented writers who have tried and failed.

Author Jennifer Weiner has been fighting a battle on Twitter about this very topic, trying to earn the respect she and other female authors deserve. She is commercially successful, yet branded with the “chick lit” label, a genre that sounds offensive because that’s the way they want it to sound, and often gets a bad rap in literary circles. However, many of the books that are lumped into this category, including those by Weiner, are entertaining, amusing, and well written. So, what’s the problem? Are literary snobs familiar with the saying that variety is the spice of life? Or, is that too cliché?

Literary fiction, a label for novels that have literary merit, is generally “critically acclaimed” and “serious”. If one consumes a steady diet of literary fiction and nothing else, how are they not suicidal? Do they ever laugh? Tell jokes at cocktail parties? Again, variety comes into play. Just as in film, there are times when you want to embrace the majesty of Fellini’s “La Dolce Vita” and then there are others when you want to laugh yourself silly with Steve Martin’s “The Jerk”.

Like Weiner, I’ve run into my fair share of literary snobs, but didn’t have the medium, the fame, or the nerve to fight back. Several years ago, I took a writing class at a local university. It was part of a Master’s program, and I did not have my Bachelor’s degree completed at the time, so I had to submit writing samples to gain entrance. I didn’t mind complying until they added it was just to be sure I could keep up with the class. Those were the exact words, condescending and cold, and that was before I met the professor and the students, all of whom just had a few more credits than me, but necessarily more talent.

The first day of class, the professor explained that our final project involved either completing a short novel or a few short stories for critique by another member of the class. He paired me with the man sitting next to me, a man who took literary snobbery to new levels. I decided to write short stories based on one character from childhood to adulthood. It could read like a novel, but also stand-alone.

The project excited me, yet for the entire semester, I dreaded what my partner would say. I don’t remember every comment he made at the end, but I’ll never forget what he said about the character. “She was such an interesting kid, but she grew up to be so ordinary.” The words crushed me because they were stories based on my life, and I’m certain he knew that. “Isn’t that what typically happens to most people?” a young man asked from across the room. I wanted to throw my arms around him and thank him for redeeming me and the character.

In life, we experience the extraordinary and the ordinary, and there is merit in both. In fiction, there is merit in both the literary and mainstream, so literary snobs, get over yourself. As long as a story is written well, what difference does it make?

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